Anyone with a Rhode Island driver’s license can tell you the story of Roger Williams’s arrival. In 1636, Puritan Massachusetts decides to punish Williams for preaching religious freedom. He flees south in the dead of winter and arrives in Providence to a warm greeting from the local Indians: “What cheer, nétop?” The Indians kindly give him some land and Williams founds Providence, a city that strives to embody the spirit of hospitality and open-mindedness which enabled its creation. The first two words of that legendary greeting are now emblazoned on Providence’s official seal, along with an etching of Williams and some fellow settlers approaching the Narragansett in a canoe.
Today, more than 300 years since its supposed utterance, ‘What Cheer’ can be found on signage in almost any neighborhood of Providence: Thayer Street’s What Cheer Records + Vintage, named out of gratitude for the hospitality the owners were shown by the local rock scene when they arrived in Providence; RISD’s What Cheer Studios, who inherited the name from the garage that formerly occupied the building; Washington Park’s What Cheer Tavern, named by a Vermont transplant who simply wanted to associate with Rhode Island culture “without using the term Ocean State.” In the last century, the name has been used by an airport, a printing press, a bank, a laundromat, and more restaurants and bars than a casual researcher would care to tally.
Yet strangely enough, the actual park on Gano Street touted as the site of Roger Williams’s arrival remains fairly obscure. Despite the phrase’s popularity, Roger Williams Landing, once known colloquially as the ‘What Cheer’ tract, is usually empty of visitors. From the park, the view of the river Williams crossed is mostly blocked by a Dunkin’ Donuts, a plant shop, and the austere meeting hall of an International Union of Operating Engineers post.
A plaque mounted on a stout stone pillar in the center of the park reads, “Below this spot, then at the water’s edge, stood the rock on which according to tradition Roger Williams, an exile for his devotion to freedom of conscience, landed 1636.” The pillar was erected in 1906, but the rock it commemorates has been missing since 1877, when the city blew it up in a botched excavation involving excessive dynamite. Plans to build a Plymouth Rock-like pavilion on the hallowed site were quickly abandoned. Entrepreneurial locals began selling shards of what had recently been dubbed Slate Rock. Community Church on Wayland Avenue bought a few pieces and embedded them in their floor. Brown University purchased a shard as well, which now resides in the pedestal of a bear statue on the university’s Main Green. When Florence Simister published Streets of the City: An Anecdotal History of Providence in 1968, the Natural History Store on Westminster Street still sold pieces of the rock in its catalog.
There is absolutely no evidence that Williams ever stepped foot on such a rock. Even in 1877, a writer for the Providence Journal suspected that Slate Rock’s memorialization had been the plot of a few nearby property owners who stood to gain from the waterfront alterations needed to excavate it. Furthermore, it would be impossible to distinguish the shards of Slate Rock from the shards of the other slate rocks that exploded during the excavation. Yet despite the obvious doubts regarding their historical significance, shards of Slate Rock are still prominently displayed around Providence and actively fictionalize Roger Williams’s arrival. The dissemination of Slate Rock under false pretenses brings forth questions about the dissemination of ‘What Cheer’. Is Rhode Island’s quirky slogan for local hospitality actually rooted in colonial history? And do we level with that history in its usage, or do we ignore it?
The deviation of the ‘What Cheer’ legend from its history is not surprising. The popularized account of the ‘What Cheer’ welcoming is a concise and entertaining story. The facts behind it are difficult to parse out.
In his manuscript for the first attempted history of Rhode Island, four-time Governor Stephen Hopkins makes it clear that even by 1762—the time of his writing—no first-hand accounts of Williams’s arrival in Providence had survived. Speculating on why the early settlers kept so few written records, Hopkins writes: “this total neglect of writing for so long a time must be attributed to their necessitous condition; and perhaps to the want of even paper to write on…the first of their writings, that are to be found, appear on small scraps of paper, wrote as thick and crowded as full as possible.” Hopkins also suggests that even if an account had been recorded, it was likely destroyed during King Philip’s War, when Narragansett and Wampanoag warriors burned most of Providence to the ground. In the absence of a first-hand account, piecing together even a rough sense of Williams’s arrival requires rigorous detective work.
A popular English greeting in the 1600s, the earliest mention of ‘What Cheer’ in a Rhode Island context is by Roger Williams himself, in his 1642 dictionary of the Narragansett language A Key Into the Language of America. However, its mention does little to clarify the historical record. “What cheare, Nétop?” is the first entry in the dictionary proper and, in keeping with the rest of the book, Williams defines the phrase with an academic distance: “the generall salutation of all English toward [the Narragansett], Nétop is friend”.
The lack of an acknowledgement of the What Cheer legend in Williams’s dictionary has led some historians to dismiss its veracity. An 1898 pamphlet published by Sidney Rider, a local bookseller who owned a vast collection of historical Rhode Island ephemera, cites Williams’ definition of What Cheer as proof that “this salutation came not from the Indians to Williams, but from Williams to the Indians.” The pamphlet is pasted into the John Hay Library’s copy of Job Durfee’s 1896 epic poem What Cheer, or, Roger Williams in Banishment, a seminal text in the fictionalization of Williams’s arrival.
The first written account of Roger Williams’s arrival in Providence appears well over a hundred years after the event took place. As told by Governor Hopkins to Theodore Foster, a lawyer who attempted (but ultimately failed) to complete Hopkins’s unfinished history, the account differs from the modern legend in one key regard: Roger Williams doesn’t land at Roger Williams Landing on the eastern shore of the Seekonk. The account, confined to a footnote in Early Attempts at Rhode Island History, Comprising those of Stephen Hopkins and Theodore Foster, reads: “Mr. Williams made signs to the Indians that he would meet them on the western shore of the neck of land on which they (the Indians) then were; going himself in the canoe, by water, round Fox Point. Which he accordingly did and met the Indians at the famous rock and spring.”
Hopkins’s account places Roger Williams’s landing on the eastern shore of the Moshassuck River, not at the Roger Williams Landing on Gano Street. But a 1657 reference by Williams to “two Indian fields called What Cheare and Saxifrax hill” points us back towards the park as the true landing site. According to an 1886 rendering of Providence’s layout in 1640, cobbled together by Charles Wyman Hopkins from information he found in a resolution for a land dispute that occurred four years after Providence’s founding, “What Cheare field” is in the precise plot that Roger Williams Landing currently occupies. Coupled with the map, the quote appears to be an affirmation by Williams himself that an event involving the phrase ‘What Cheer’ deserved commemoration on the very site touted as Williams’s landing spot today.
It’s hard to know which accounts of Williams’s landing are worth ignoring and which are worth speculating on. Suffice it to say that the history behind the ‘What Cheer’ legend is unclear and without a definitive account of Williams’s landing, the facts of who said what where are impossible to confirm.
However, there are other important discrepancies to highlight between What Cheer’s history and its legend. A common misunderstanding is that the Narragansett gave Roger Williams and his fellow settlers free land.
Stephen Hopkins, whose early history of Rhode Island is ever-influential regardless of its accuracy, wrote that Canonicus, the elder Narragansett sachem at the time Williams and his party arrived, “generously made them a present of all that neck of land lying between the mouths of Pawtucket and Moshasuck rivers, that they might sit down in peace upon it and enjoy it forever”. In reality, the land deed was part of a mutual exchange between Williams and the Narragansett tribe. In a handwritten affidavit that now resides in the Rhode Island Historical Society, Williams wrote, “I never got anything out of Canonicus but by gift…I never denied him nor Miantonomi whatever they desired of me as to goods or gifts or use of my boats & pinnance & the travails of my owne person day and night.”
The Narragansett never asked for money through a land deed, which from a European-American perspective makes the land Williams acquired look free. However, the gift giving that Williams references was an essential part of Indian diplomacy across the Northeast. Negotiations were often abandoned if a European party arrived with insufficient gifts. The Narragansett gave Williams land under the conditions that he pay them tributes regularly and act as a diplomat on their behalf. Under this agreement, Williams and company would receive the land and agricultural support they needed after severing ties with powerful Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the Narragansett would reap the benefits of Williams’s gifts, diplomacy and the neutral buffer his settlement provided between the Narragansett and the Wampanoag across the Seekonk.
For the most part, this bargain was upheld for decades. Yet, when the ‘What Cheer’ story is told today, there is no mention of a bargain, only a gift from the Narragansett to the colonists. This is a self-serving alteration from a European-American perspective. If the unwritten conditions of the land deal can be forgotten, so too can Rhode Island’s subsequent violations of them.
Following the breakout of King Philip’s War in 1676, the violations stacked up quickly. When the Wampanoag first waged war on Massachusetts and Plymouth in retaliation for their persistent seizure of Indian lands and resources, Providence and the Narragansett nation remained neutral, a testament to their peaceful relationship. However, the localized skirmishes quickly devolved into a race war that spread across New England. Soldiers from the Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut colonies sieged the Narragansett stronghold near present-day Kingstown and killed an estimated 600 Narragansett, galvanizing the Narragansett to join what historian Charles Mann called the bloodiest war in American history proportional to population. At the close of the war, even Roger Williams regressed into destructive behavior, facilitating a meeting where Providence decided to sell its Indian captives into the transatlantic slave trade.
In modern Rhode Island, using the ‘What Cheer’ legend to frame Rhode Island’s treatment of Indians encourages a selective look at history. Though we revere Roger Williams’s progressive beliefs today, his tenets of Indian rights to land ownership and freedom of religion did not characterize Rhode Island’s subsequent treatment of the neighboring Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Niantic nations.
Today, most references to ‘What Cheer’ exclude the third word that once followed: nétop. Without nétop, ‘What Cheer’ is just a dated English greeting. Many Rhode Islanders now use the truncated phrase to extend hospitality to other non-indigenous Rhode Islanders, a relationship that bears little resemblance to the one Williams tried to memorialize when he commemorated ‘What Cheare field’ more than 300 years earlier. Business owners and city officials who use the phrase likely do so with good intentions, attempting to honor the positive diplomatic relationship maintained by Providence and the Narragansett nation prior to King Philip’s War. However, ‘What Cheer’ can only represent that discrete historical moment. Using the phrase to conjure a false legacy of this relationship merely serves to soothe the local conscience through the slighting of colonial aggression.
BEN BERKE B’16 thinks ‘What Cheer’ by itself is still a cool greeting.